The Maine mess, and how they used to pick delegates

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There have been many comments on problems with the count in the straw presidential poll taken at the Maine Republican municipal caucuses. Results from certain caucuses were excluded because the caucus was held outside the dates specified by the state party rules. In one case, a caucus was delayed because of bad weather, but the state party opted to announce the straw poll results on the date expected by the media, even though not all caucuses had been held.

Some supporters of a certain presidential candidate are convinced that the problems were deliberately designed to favor the former governor of a nearby state and deprive their candidate of the opportunity to claim a win. Many seem to believe that a caucus straw poll is just another way to have a primary, and they're upset that the results can't be certified like a real primary election.

The way Maine selects its delegates is like nearly every other state Republican party -- a series of caucuses and conventions beginning at the local level and working up to the congressional district and state level where delegates and alternates to the national convention are elected. What makes Maine, Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and other states different is that their elected national convention delegates may vote as they please. In Oklahoma and most other primary states, the national convention delegates elected at state and congressional district conventions are bound by the result of the presidential preference primary. (There are a few states, like Illinois and New York, where voters vote directly for delegates, who may be pledged to a specific presidential candidate.)

Before 1988, Oklahoma's delegates were unbound, as in Maine, but they were elected based on their allegiance to the candidate preferred by most state and district convention delegates. My recollection is that all of our delegates in 1976 and 1980 went to Reagan, despite a strong minority in 1976 that preferred Ford. (I was at the 1st Congressional District convention in 1976 at Nathan Hale High School Auditorium. Dad was the lone Wagoner County delegate and convention secretary that year, and in the minority as a Ford fan. In 1980 I attended both 1st District and state conventions.)

In the days when most delegates were unbound by primaries, it was important for caucus-goers to elect people they trusted, who shared their values, to be delegates at the county convention, and so on up the chain to the national convention. Someone running to be a national delegate might pledge to back a particular presidential candidate, but it was important to pick someone whose values you trusted, as the delegate always had the option of changing his mind at the convention. In the weeks leading up to the 1976 convention, Ford and Reagan targeted their campaigns at the 2,259 delegates, trying to hold on to their own and pry some loose from the other side. (The final tally was Ford 1,187, Reagan 1,070, Elliot Richardson 1, with 1 abstention. Here's the 1976 Republican roll call, as it appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, on Aug 20, 1976. All of Oklahoma's 36 delegates went to Reagan.)

In a state like Maine that doesn't bind its delegates, the straw poll is just an extra -- a way to check the mood of the state's Republican grassroots activists, using the excitement of the presidential campaign to boost caucus turnout, and fodder for a press release and national attention.

Here's a comment I posted at Maggie's Notebook and, in a slightly different form, in response to Slublog's post at Ace of Spades HQ:

I don't think this was by design at all. Precinct, county, and state Republican Parties are largely run by volunteers. In a year with less attention focused on every caucus, a sloppily tallied straw poll or a county convention rescheduled for weather would be no big deal.

It's important to distinguish between the caucuses and the straw poll taken at the caucuses. They're two different things. Even if there were no straw poll, even if there were a primary, there would still have to be caucuses as part of the process of electing Maine's delegates to the Republican National Convention. Municipal and county caucuses elect delegates to the state convention who, in turn, elect delegates to the national convention.

So if you're going to have all these Republicans gathering anyway, why not take a straw poll? And why not use the straw poll to drive up caucus participation?

What went wrong in Maine is that the national media, hungry for any numbers at all in a month without primaries, made a big deal out of the results, and the Maine party was unprepared for the onslaught of attention and the media's expectation of a rigorous result.

The only poll that really matters is a poll of Maine's elected delegation to the Republican National Convention. That won't be determined until May 6.


The Green Papers on the history of the formulas used to apportion national convention delegates to the states, and the origins of bonus delegates and super delegates.

St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press - Aug 19, 1976: 6th District Delegates Held Tight for Reagan: Describes a delegate who was a Ford backer but won his seat by pledging to vote for Reagan; he held to his pledge despite pressure to flip.

Spokane Daily Chronicle - Aug 19, 1976: State Delegate Gets Revenge: Anida Pithoud, National Committeewoman from Washington state, ousted from her post by conservatives at the state convention, delivered a seconding speech for Ford and was happy to see the Reagan majority the the Washington delegation disappointed. She complained that conservatives had been trying to take over the state party's central committee for 10 years and complained about the Reagan-bots in familiar terms:

She was one of only seven Ford delegates in the 38-member delegation. She maintained Reagan was able to capture the other 31 because of the participation of many people who "came in only on account of Reagan and will disappear now."

The (Pomeroy-Middleport, Oh.) Daily Sentinel - Jul 22, 1976: Reagan Raiding Ohio Delegates: Reports that Reagan had sent operative Jeff Bell to Ohio to lure away some of Ford's 91 delegates, while the Ford team went after Reagan's six Ohio delegates, arguing "that the President has a better chance of beating Jimmy Carter in November."

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Graychin said:

It's not who votes that counts. It's who counts the votes.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 19, 2012 11:47 PM.

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